It’s no mean feat when a band manages to span a total of five decades. But that’s exactly what punk’s bad boy veterans The Stranglers have now done.
Since their inception in 1974, they have survived the blow of losing their pivotal front man and guitarist Hugh Cornwell back in 1990 plus the subsequent departure of his replacement, Paul Roberts, in 2006. Now re-established as a four piece with existing guitarist Baz Warne, ex of Geordie punkers The Toy Dolls, stepping up to co-front the band with bassist JJ Burnel, the band have had something of a renaissance in recent years.
Check out the DVD of Cornwell’s last ever show with the band at the vacuous Ally Pally and you will find a band at an all-time career nadir. Cornwell looks bored; his guitar solos lost in horn sections and Dave Greenfield’s keyboard tinkles. The band had become the anti-thesis of what they railed against in the late 70s and early 80s. Boring, plodding middle-aged pop. Even the old songs sound tired and over-played.
Now fast-forward 22 years to the band’s penultimate gig on their UK Giants tour at the Sheffield O2 and witness a band reborn. The old songs like set opener ‘Burning up time’, ‘Hanging around’ and ‘5 minutes’ are back to their brooding and menacing best. Burnel’s bass lines are once again brutal and propel the songs along, Dave Greenfield’s keyboards Doors-ey and dirty.
There’s no Jet Black on drums tonight, having fallen to victim to a chest infection earlier on in the tour at Oxford. Understudy and drum tech Ian Barnard proves to be a more than able deputy though and doesn’t drop a beat all night. Co-front man Baz Warne has perfected the art of sounding like Hugh Cornwell and being true to the originals while stamping his own personality and sense of humour on the band.
Predictably the set draws heavily on the band’s extensive back catalogue. We get crowd pleases like ‘Peaches’, ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Duchess’ and ‘No more heroes? but also get the occasional curveballs like a cinematic ‘Raven’, a frenetic ‘Hey! (Rise of the Robots)’ from 1978’s Black and White album and a break-neck ‘Shut up’ in preference to its far better know A-side, ‘Nice’n’sleazy’.
Instrumentally the high point of the evening has to go to the keyboard wig-out in ‘Walk on by’, surely the best cover version ever done. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night is that we only get four songs from Giants, the band’s 17th and unquestionably finest long-player since Cornwell left, and one that takes them back sonically to their heyday in the late 70s. The jerky pop ‘Time Was Once on My Side’ is joined by the more melodic strum of the title track which sees the two front men share vocal duties to good effect.
Set closer ‘Something better change’ reminds us one of Burnel’s best ever vocals before a four-song encore salvo brings proceedings to an end in time for the ridiculously early 10pm curfew. The very final song, an explosive and up-tempo version of ‘Tank’, resonates round the two-thirds full venue, personifying everything good about the band and topping off a compelling gig.
Words & Pics: Denzil Watson.